Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Autobiographical Sketches of a Strength-Seeker, Part Two - George Barker Windship (1862)


My previous attempts in the gymnasium had beeen spasmodic and irregular. Having now a definite object in view, I set about my work in earnest, and went through a daily systematic practice of a little more than an hour's duration.

The gymnasium was kept by a Mr. Law, and, though ordinary in its accomodations, had a good arrangement of apparatus, of which I faithfully availed myself. The springboard, horse, vaulting apparatus, parallel bars, suspended rings, horizontal and inclined ladders, pulley-weight pegs, climbing rope, trapezoid, etc., were all put in frequent requisition. 

My time for exerise was generally in the evening, when I would find myself almost alone, -- while the clicking of balls from the billiard rooms and bowling alleys downstairs announced that a busy crowd -- if amusement may be called a business -- were there assembled. 

Naturally indolent, it was not without a severe struggle that I overcame a besetting propensity to confine myself to sedentary pursuits. The desire of retaliation soon became extinct. My pledge to a friend and sympathizer, that in two years I would cry quittance to my foe, would occasionally act as a spur in the side of my intent; but my two best aids in supplying me with the motive power to keep up my gymnastic practice were habit and progress. What will not habit make easy to us, whether it be for good or for evil? And what an incentive we have to renewed effort in finding that we are making actual progress, -- that we can do with comparative facility today what we could do only with difficulty yesterday! 

Two years, while we are not yet on the sunny side of twenty, are no trifle; but for two years I persistently and methodically went through the exercise of the gymnasium. At the end of that time I had quite lost sight of my original object in cultivating my athletic powers; for all annoyances towards me had long since been dropped by my old enemy. But punctually on the dayh of expiration, the friend who had listened to my pledge came to me and claimed its fulfillment. From some evidences which he had recently had of my strength he felt a soothing assurance that I should have no difficulty in making good my promise.

I accordingly called on the lively young gentleman who two years before had indulged in those little frolics at my expense. With diplomatic ceremony and circumlocution I introduced the object of my visit, and wound up with an ultimatum to this effect: There must either be a frank apology for past indignities, or he must accompany mem each with a friend, to some suitable spot, and there decide which was "the better man." 

If he had been called on to expiate an offence commited before he was breeched, the young gentleman could not have been more astonded. Two years had made some change in our relative positions. I was not about his equal in size, and  felt a comfortable sense of my superiority, so far as strength was concerned. My shoulders had broadened, and my muscles been developed, so as to present to the critical and interested observer a somewhat threatening appearance. 

Mr. _____ (who, by the way, was a good fellow in the main) protested that he had never intended to give me any offence, -- that he, in fact, did not remember the circumstances to which I referred, -- and finished by peremptorily declining my proposal. When I reflected on the disparity between us in strength, which my two years' practice had established, I felt that it would be cowardly for me to urge the matter further, especially as it was so long a time since he had given me cause of complaint. I have only to add, that we parted without a collision, and that, in my heart, I could not help thanking him for the service he had rendered in inciting me to the regimen which had resulted so beneficially to my health.

The impetus given to my gymnastic education by the little incident I have just relalted was continued without abatement through my whole college life. Gradually I acquired the reputation of being the strongest man in my class. I discovered that with every day's development of my strength there was an increase of my ability to resist and overcome all fleshy ailmentsm, pains and infirmities, -- a discovery which subsequent experience has so amply confirmed, that, if I were called on to condense the proposition which sums it up into a formula, it would be in these words: Strength is Health. 

Until I had renovated my bodily system by a faithful gymnastic training, I had been subject to nervousness, headache, indigestion, rush of blood to the head, and a weak circulation. It was torture to me to have to listen to the grating of a slate-pencil, the filing of a saw, or the scratching of glass. As I grew in strength, my nerves ceased to be impressible to such annoyances. 

Another good effect was to take away all appetite for any stimulating food or drink. Although I have never applied "rebellious liquors" to my blood, I had been in the habit of taking a bowl of strong coffee morning and night. Now a craving for milk took that place of that want, and my coffee was gradually diminshed to less than a fourth of what had been a customary indulgence.

At last aarrived the eagerly looked-for day of release from collegiate restrictions and labors. I graduated, and the questsion, so momentous in the history of all adolescents, "What shall I be?" addressed itself serously to my mind. My father was desirous that I should choose medicine for a profession, and become the fourth physicial, in lineal sequence, of my family on the paternal side.

Medicine. I cavilled at it awhile, that I might bring out to view its grimmest and most discouraging aspect. The cares, trials, humiliations of a young physician, his months and years of uncompensated drudgery, passed in awful review before me. I thought of his toils among the poor and lowly, the vidious and depraved, -- of his broken sleep, -- the interruptions of his social ease, -- and then of the many scenes so repugnant to delicate nerves which he has to pass through, -- scenes of pain and insanity, of maimed and severed limbs, and all the eccentricities and fearful forms of disease. These considerations pressed with such weight on my mind that for a time my ancenstral craft was in danger of being ignominiously rejected by me. Indeed, I began to think seriously of adopting a very different vocation. And here I will make a confession, if the gentle reader will take it confidentially.

It is a familiar fact, that every college boy has to pass through an attack of the rhyming frenzy as regularly as the child has to submit to measles and  the whooping-cough. A less frequent, but not less trying complaint, is that which manifests itself in aa passion for the stage and in an espousal of the delusion that one was born for a great actor. At any rate, this last was the type which my juvenile maliase-du-coeur finally assumed. 

I have heard of a young gentleman who, whenever he was hard up for money, went to his nearest relatives and threatened them with the publication of his original poems. This threat never failed to open the paternal purse. I do not know what effect the intimation of my histrionic aspiratijons would have had; but one fine day I found myself on my way to Rochester, in the state of New York . . . 




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